Taking Control: Why Autonomy Reduces Stress

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

3. Autonomy

“Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment; a sensation of having choices. Mieka (1985) showed that the degree of control organisms can exert over a stress factor determines whether or not the stressor alters the organism’s functioning. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be highly destructive, whereas the same stress interpreted as escapable is significantly less destructive. (Donny et al, 2006).”
(SCARF white paper)

Human beings have evolved to carefully evaluate each social situation for danger. I previously wrote about status, but there is a broader evaluation of whether the situation supports or threatens one’s capacity for choice, presumably to ensure options for fleeing are available at all times.

A greater feeling of control leads to reduced stress. In a study of nursing homes, Rodin and Langer found that residents who had all their choices made for them were less healthy and had shorter life-spans than those who were given more control over decisions that affected them. Other studies in the workplace have shown that the number one cause for people leaving a profession is perceived lack of control over work-life balance.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

If teachers dictate the content, delivery and pace of every lesson then not only are they giving themselves a hard time but they may be unwittingly inflicting greater stress on students. If a child is faced with obligatory tasks that they feel they cannot do then they will become anxious, and their learning will be impaired. However if we allow them choices at these moments of stress then it can help them relax and enjoy themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean kids should be allowed to opt for the easy low-challenge material, and we have to be careful that each challenge has that optimum level of uncertainty that promotes the greatest learning.

Teachers commonly proffer control to students in other situations, using choice to help defuse anger and bad behaviour, although we can see that transparently fake choices (‘it’s my way or you leave’) will only increase the tension further.

School Leadership

Micromanagement is well-known bad practice, and we can now see why from the brain’s perspective. School leaders should avoid dictating classroom practice as this piles on pressure when teachers need to be calm. Instead, offer structures with clear room for choice. At moments of high stress (e.g. inspections) offer staff choices and some control. “You have to do it this way” will lead to much more stress and resentment than “Something needs to change, which of these two options would you prefer?”

Try to give flexibility in working patterns – a good school will be clear that they will support part-time working if at all possible. If your timetable can introduce elements of choice for students then they will also feel more empowered and engaged.

Education Policy

Autonomy is the current buzz-word in education, although politicians are irresistibly drawn toward micromanagement and centralisation as it satisfies their own feelings of control and therefore safety. Devolving power may be intellectually satisfying but it increases the stress of policy makers when they don’t feel they have hands on the levers. Political leaders and commentators should recognise that stressed, insecure politicians centralise, and that attacking them incessantly can only exacerbate this.

School inspectorates have a tough but necessary job to assure quality. However even a small amount of autonomy could help. For example, allowing teachers to opt to choose broadly to be seen during one day or another would be massively beneficial. Teachers would be less stressed, and this would ensure observations were more realistic.

Summary

  • Lack of control or choice increases stress levels. This suppresses learning, demotivates, and can lead to poor health.
  • Leaders’ desire to reduce their own stress drives them toward taking control over everything, but this instinct will increase stress in everyone else. A balance needs to be maintained.
  • At moments of high stress, simply giving a choice can help defuse some of the tension.

Bibliography

  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Donny, E. C., Bigelow, G. E., & Walsh S. L. (2006). Comparing the physiological and subjective effects of self-administered vs yoked cocaine in humans. Psychopharmacology, 186(4), 544-52.
  • Dworkin, S I., Mirkis, S., Smith J. E. (1995). Response-dependent versus response-independent presentation of cocaine: differences in the lethal effects of the drug. Psychopharmacology, 117(3), 262-266.
  • Rodin, J. (1986). Aging and health: effects of the sense of control. Science, 233, 1271-1276.

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